Darkwood is a unique game with a relatively long development history. Developed by a small Polish indie studio called Acid Wizard, the game was available on Steam as an Early Access title as far back as 2014, and it was only officially released in August 2017.
Naturally, it has gone through some significant gameplay changes over the years. After all the patches and fixes, it feels like a radically different game now, compared to what it was at its inception.
Without beating around the bush, I’ll immediately say that Darkwood is easily one of the best games I have ever played, and I don’t make such statements lightly. In this review, I’ll explain precisely why.
Darkwood kicks off with a brief intro sequence, putting the player in the shoes of the “Doctor,” a character who will later play an essential role in the story. We find out that an unknown disease is ravaging the forest. The trees are growing unnaturally fast, blocking all the roads to the outside world. The good Doctor, too, hasn’t been upholding the Hippocratic Oath.
Soon enough, he ends up in a clearing where he encounters a wounded man who happens to have a key that the Doctor believes unlocks a way out of the woods. The disfigured mute man is then held captive and is brutally beaten by the Doctor, who is dead-set on figuring out where the door that the key unlocks is.
Then, the perspective changes. The player takes control of the captive man, who is the true protagonist of the game and is simply referred to as “The Protagonist” or the “Stranger.”
The player breaks free, the doctor disappears, and the Stranger gets almost killed by a pack of monsters that swarm the Doctor’s house. However, he will be saved by another mysterious figure known as the “Trader,” and wakes up in the first hideout. Here is where the real game begins.
The intro doesn’t give you much to go on and only sets a basic premise: we know virtually nothing about the Stranger, the Doctor, or the Trader. That said, the story of Darkwood is cryptic and layered, relying a lot on the player’s ability to presume certain plot points from the environment, subtle cues and hints presented in the dialogues – or rather, monologues, as the Stranger is unable to speak for an unexplained reason.
The woods are filled with memorable and unique characters, all odd and disturbing in their way. Early on, the player will encounter the “Trader”, who is also unable to speak and has mushrooms growing all over his body; the menacing and sadistic “Wolfman”, and many other characters. They are all presented up close in conversation screens through beautiful and minimally colored art that reflects the bleak and melancholic hopelessness of the game’s world.
The player’s ultimate goal is to reclaim his key from the Doctor and escape the woods, but the journey isn’t all that linear. There are different ways to progress forward, some moral decisions to take, and plenty of interesting side quests that should be explored.
Darkwood is highly evocative and atmospheric and requires patience and attention from those who want to truly take it in and understand it.
In the end, without digging into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that the game is open to interpretation, and there is no be-all-end-all solution to the game’s riddles. Is it all just a dream or a drug-induced nightmare? Perhaps PTSD, or maybe the afterlife, or even incomprehensible Lovecraftian forces! Maybe it is simply an obscure fairytale. It’s all up to the player to decide how they want to interpret the story, and virtually any answer is as good as the next one.
Describing Darkwood’s gameplay using only the familiar genre tags that we’re all used to is tricky. Perhaps it is most accurately described as a “top-down survival horror game.”
First and foremost, Darkwood is fantastic at making the player feel vulnerable. The protagonist – The Stranger – has a limited field of view, and visibility isn’t that great in many parts of the map even during the day. Players have to rely on their sense of hearing to detect unseen threats in the dark interiors and dense thickets that make up most of Darkwood’s environments.
On top of that, the Stranger’s health and stamina reserves are relatively limited. There is only so much room for error when it comes to health and stamina management, and in this regard, the game echoes Dark Souls (cue the “Dark Souls of indie horror games” jokes).
Most enemies can diminish your health down in a matter of seconds. If you’re not carefully aiming and timing your counterattacks, you’ll quickly find yourself with insufficient stamina to fight back or escape.
The player will be able to get their hands on several weapons throughout the game. These include melee weapons, thrown weapons, and firearms that become more abundantly available towards the final chapter of the game. In addition to that, the player can use several types of traps and certain environment items such as gas tanks and explosive barrels to disable and damage enemies.
The moveset, however, is a bit limited. It consists of two attacks: a slow one with a wind-up that does more damage and uses up less stamina, and a quick one, that does less damage and uses up more stamina.
On the other hand, the only defensive move is a short-distance backward dodge that takes some skill to use efficiently in combat against enemies with a longer reach. Overall, I feel that Darkwood’s combat experience works quite well, though it may be a bit clunky and could perhaps use some extra weapons for variety’s sake.
There are some threats in Darkwood that no ax, shotgun, or trap will stop. This is where hideouts enter the equation. In the earlier versions of the game, hideouts were, but later on the developers have made them indispensable. In the final version of Darkwood, hideouts are special buildings, and each of the game’s four zones features a unique hideout. What sets a hideout apart from other buildings in the game world is the fact that it comes with an array of useful utilities, some of which are rarely found outside hideouts:
- A workbench, used for creating new weapons and items, repairing melee weapons, as well as for storing items.
- A buzz saw, which allows the player to turn wooden logs into planks which are then used to create barricades and craft certain items.
- A generator, which provides the hideout with power, granting much-needed visibility at night and helps with warding off one specific type of enemy that the player might encounter.
- A well, which allows the player to regenerate health once a day by drinking water from it.
- A stove, which the player uses to extract “Essence” from mushrooms and other items to level up and unlock new abilities. The stove also spreads a protective gas throughout the hideout, and this is what wards off the greatest danger that stalks the woods at night.
Athough it may be the safest place to be in complete darkness, a hideout is by no means safe. Almost every night, enemies will try to get into the hideout, and it’s up to the player to strategically barricade entries and exits, leaving escape routes open while herding enemies into areas where they’re easier to trap or fight off.
Of course, the hideouts get progressively more difficult to defend, and the player will have to deal with enemies who are not only more powerful, but also more numerous.
On top of all that, various hideout events can take place at night, from benign and not-so-benign poltergeists to earthquakes and a variety of inexplicable phenomena that could be either beneficial or harmful. Because of this, nights are never boring, and are one of the game’s highlights.
While you may be stuck in your hideout at night, the forest is your oyster during the day – a deadly one, full of bear traps, poisonous mushrooms, feral dogs and feral people, and an array of colorful nightmare monstrosities.
The world is open and ripe for exploration, though some areas might be locked off for story reasons or until certain requirements are met. To a degree, the map is procedurally-generated, although all key locations remain more or less identical from playthrough to playthrough.
Exploration makes up a big deal of Darkwood. The world holds many secrets: you can find supplies, weapons, and side quests that can yield worthwhile rewards, though not every rock is worth turning over, and not every story has a happy ending. Just don’t forget to keep an eye on the time! If you don’t find or buy a watch, you need to keep an eye on the environment to figure out when the sun starts setting, as you most definitely don’t want to be stranded far away from your hideout once the night falls.
Finally, on the subject of difficulty, Darkwood features three difficulty modes:
- Normal: this is the “easy” mode, where the only penalty for dying is dropping half of your gear at the place where you died. There are no draconian punishments for failure, so this is the best setting for new players who are yet to figure out how the game works.
- Hard: this is the best for intermediate players. On Hard, the player has only four lives, so mistakes count.
- Nightmare: perma-death. This one is only recommended for those who are familiar with the game and are looking for a serious challenge. This is the most exhilarating way to experience the horrors of Darkwood, and it is bound to keep even the most hardened veterans on their toes.
With all that said, the difficulty settings only deals with dying penalties. Your health, the damage you deal, the damage that enemies deal, and the abundance of resources that can be found in the world remain unaffected.
The game is comprised of daily expeditions into the unknown and nightly defense against some things that you’d probably prefer to remain unknown, and both of these are executed marvelously. There’s tons of interesting stuff and contextual storytelling going on, and finding valuable supplies is immensely satisfying. Surviving the night is even better, especially in later hideouts and on greater difficulties.
As I have previously stated, I consider Darkwood to be one of the best games I have ever played, and for multiple reasons. Mainly these are the art direction, the presentation, the fact that it doesn’t hold the player’s hand, its sheer uniqueness, and the way that higher levels allow it to remain exciting even after you’ve gotten familiar with its mechanics, environments, and enemies.
The graphics are simple but effective: the washed-out color palette serves as a means for evoking a feeling of isolation and desperation that Darkwood focuses on.
This is complemented by superb sound design that pulls the player in, amplifying the atmosphere to a whole new level – you’ll be twitching at the sound of cracking branches and the phantom steps echoing through the hideout. You’ll hardly remain indifferent when hearing some of those unholy sounds produced by some of the game’s monsters.
Moreover, the main story and the side stories told in Darkwood have a lot of staying power; they deal with some interesting symbolism and clever foreshadowing, which help the endings of those stories – most of them bittersweet – leave a profound impact.
The only real issue that I have with the game – apart from it not being longer and not having any DLCs, at least not yet – are some relatively minor issues that have to do with pacing and balancing.
Firstly, while the first chapter with its first three areas does a great job making the players feel vulnerable and forcing them to play slowly and carefully, the second chapter with the final area seems to do the opposite.
Some of the enemies in the final area feel undoubtedly weak in combat despite their awesome designs, and the fact that you can get your hands on an ax and a pump-action shotgun almost at the very beginning of the second chapter doesn’t help the situation.
When put together, powerful new weapons and experience made the second chapter feel a bit too easy, and many players noted that the fourth hideout is noticeably easier to defend than the third one. That is not to say that the final chapter is easy. Yet, it somewhat gets more manageable, and I would have preferred if it ramped up the difficulty instead.
Secondly, some players may find the melee combat slow, sluggish, and a bit clunky, though I felt that it was executed reasonably well. The game doesn’t tolerate button mashing, and if you’re taking on multiple enemies or a single powerful one at close range, it’s important to be tactful and focused. I already mentioned that the game could use some extra weapons – even if they were reskins with minor stat adjustments that just to provide a sense of variety.
Finally, there’s the game’s leveling system, which is rather simple. You collect stuff that yields Essence, you cook it, and then you get to pick a new ability across four different tiers. From each tire, you can pick two beneficial and one detrimental new ability/perk. While this sounds fine, the progression is rather linear, and some abilities/perks are just not that useful.
At the end of the day, Darkwood is a remarkable game that pretty much has everything that you’d expect from an indie title. It knows what it wants to do, and it does it exceptionally well. It manages to be scary without ever resorting to cheap jumpscares, it keeps you tense throughout the entire game, and it tells a unique story that feels like a tragically beautiful and grim fairytale. It’s difficult to compare it to other games, but it definitely has vibes reminiscent of the likes of Don’t Starve, Dark Souls, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
However, if you’re not the kind of person who likes to sit down and get pulled into a game for hours on end, paying attention to its enigmatic story and getting immersed in the atmosphere, or if you just don’t like the whole “scavenge, craft, survive” gameplay model, then it’s probably not for you.
Darkwood is available on an array of platforms. You can play it on Windows, Ubuntu, macOS, and if you prefer consoles, it’s also available on the PS4, the Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.
- Top-notch art direction
- Excellent sound design
- Subtle and captivating story
- Tense, risky, and rewarding combat
- Some players may find melee combat clunky
- Could use a few more melee weapons
- The leveling system could be better
- The final area feels easier than it should be